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Episode #04

(Re) Imagine Your Dream

with Simi Adeagbo

08 Jun, 2020 · Skeleton

Simi Adeagbo, Olympic Skeleton Racer, describes her journey in sport as uncomfortable, purposeful, and fun. She shares how mental toughness, determination, and heart have guided her to success in sport and an even greater impact on the world.

Transcript

(background music starts)

Stef

Welcome to the Voice In Sport Podcast. I'm your host, Stef Strack, the  founder of Voice In Sport. As an athlete, professional, and mom, I have spent the last 20 years advocating for women and innovating across the sports industry. Now, I want to bring more visibility to female athletes and elevate their voice. At Voice In Sport, we share untold stories from female athletes to inspire us all to keep playing and change more than just the game.

Today, our guest is Simi Adeagbo, a Nigerian Olympic skeleton racer. Simi’s illustrious career in sport began with track and field which led her to become a four-time all-American at the University of Kentucky. Simi had the dream of competing in the summer Olympics as a triple jumper, which she missed twice by mere inches. As a result, Simi then retired from sport, or so she thought, and pursued a career at Nike where we crossed paths creating innovative products for athletes. 10 years later, she discovered the opportunity to be a trailblazer in the sport of skeleton where she became Africa’s first female skeleton athlete in history. Simi shares her inspiring story, one of Olympic dreams and reinvention, the trials and tribulations of sport, and most importantly how she has used her journey in sport to make a greater impact on the world. Welcome Simi. We are super excited to have you here at the Voice in Sport Podcast!

(background music stops)

Simi

Thank you, Voice In Sport, for having me in this platform, giving female athletes a voice.

Stef

And your voice is an incredible one to bring more visibility to. So, let's start with your journey in sport; it's pretty incredible. I want you to take us back to what you actually started as, as a young female athlete, all the way up to 2018, when you went to your first Olympics.

Simi

Yes. So, it started in fourth grade and winning field day, and from there, that led me to competing in a number of different sports, growing up from softball to volleyball to field hockey, also basketball, but the sport where I really excelled was track and field. So I started track and field and was a seven-time State Champion in high school, a four-time all-American at the University of Kentucky and started getting really good at triple jump. And that was my original Olympic dream to become an Olympian in the triple jump.

 I came close to making an Olympic team two times, and in 2008, when I  missed it by just inches, that basically ended my triple jump career and I moved on and was happily retired and moved on to my career at Nike and thought that sport was really over for me as a competitive athlete until, fast forward 10 years, I discovered the sport, first, of bobsled. I heard about the Nigerian women's bobsled team and decided that I was going to try out for that team, and through the tryout process, then discovered skeleton. And within a hundred days after I discovered the sport, I ended up at the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang. So, I reimagined my Olympic dream and ended up, instead of summer, in winter. But really proud that I was able to make history as the first African woman to compete in Olympic skeleton.

Stef

That is very incredible, and as a young girl who might be listening to this podcast, I think it's pretty powerful to hear Simi's story. She didn't sit there and think she was going to be an Olympic athlete,  as a skeleton racer when she was 14. And here she is after several different sports, a great college career, even actually going into a career at Nike and then totally switching gears and going after a new dream. 

You have broken a lot of barriers with what you have done over the last few years. And it's very inspiring and I'd love to hear a little bit about why you did it, you know, was there something internal that was driving you beyond the athletic side, because it must be super tough if you're going down, what do you call it? 

(laughs)

Simi

Track. It's really a mountain. You're going headfirst down an ice track at 80 miles an hour. 

Stef

Why did you get into this sport? What were you thinking? What was your motivation? 

Simi

Yes. So, that is a great question because skeleton is a very daring sport and it's not a sport that most people do as a first sport. You find people who come into skeleton as a second sport. And for me, it was never on my radar, but when I found out that no African woman had ever competed in skeleton, that became my why. 

For me, I was very passionate about how I could shape the narrative of Africa. And I felt like I was best positioned to do that through sport. So, around the time where I discovered skeleton, I had been living in South Africa for a few years and really just, I love the continent; I'm Nigerian, but it was cool to live in South Africa. And I started traveling around the continent and just seeing amazing places. There are so many amazing places to visit in Africa and seeing how rich and diverse and beautiful and innovative and resilient the continent and the people within it are. And so, I wanted to somehow be able to showcase the true African narrative that I was seeing, through sport, and I felt like what better platform to do that than on the Olympic stage. And when I heard about this opportunity, I thought, well, why not me and why not now? And I felt like if I could dust off the cobwebs of retirement and somehow whip myself back into shape, then there was a bigger mission. There was a bigger opportunity at stake in terms of what it could mean for the continent of Africa. 

Stef

I think it's so inspiring. And I want to go back to what you said, which is "Why not me?," and I think one of the challenges that young girls face right now or any time, even for me as an Alaskan in the sport of soccer, it can be really hard if you don't see role models out there that look like you. So, what do you think that you would encourage girls to think about or do when they're in a sport where they don't see a lot of people that look like them? 

Simi

Yes, that is a tough place to be in. And I was definitely in that space and entering that space in this winter world, as an African woman and doing it for the first time. So, part of the reason I wanted to do it was so that girls could see that it's possible. But sometimes when, you don't have that example, I think you have to be in a space where you know that you're taking up space, and you're helping break that barrier for other people. And so, you have to stand in that strength. So, I would say, to the girls who are in spaces where maybe nobody else looks like them, just know that part of you being there is really a celebration of people who come from different backgrounds. So, embrace that opportunity. I love that by me being that first African woman, I had a unique opportunity to showcase Africa's beauty. So, I really put a lot of thought into how I showed up in my sport.

You have to know that you belong there, just like anyone else. I'll give you an example of this. At the Olympics, in the sport of skeleton, they have these trucks that take you from the bottom of the track to the top of the track because it's literally a mountain. You can't walk back up. And so, I was in a truck with this guy from Latvia; he's a skeleton athlete. And this guy is literally the Michael Jordan of skeleton, like it doesn't get better than him. He has all the track records. He's been to several Olympics. And in that awkward moment, in the back of that truck, as it's snowing in PyeongChang, South Korea, we don't speak the same language, it was a bit awkward 'cause it was like, "what do I say?". But in that moment I felt like, you know what? I belong here just in the same way. We're sharing the same space. We are in the same truck at the Olympic games. 

And so, it was really important for me to know that I belong and know that I can take up that space. And know what that means, not only in that moment, but for girls behind me that are coming. And this is probably the first time that Latvian skeleton athlete has seen a Nigerian woman in the back of a skeleton truck, so hallelujah! So, I would say for the girls who are coming up, just stand in that space and really take ownership of it; know that you belong there and keep working hard and breaking barriers in your own right. It's going to be a worthwhile journey, not only in the present, but for years to come. 

Stef

Well, I am sure you inspired him as well in that truck ride. 

(laughs)

Well, let's talk about that kind of confidence you are mentioning, because it is really tough, I think, for all of us in our journey in sport to keep the confidence up, and we all have ups and downs, but certainly if you don't see yourself or see others like you in that sport, it can be double hard. So, what would you say to girls to build their confidence, especially when they don't see others like them around? 

Simi

That is not an easy thing to grapple with because your confidence  can be so delicate. One minute, it's up; the next minute, it can easily be broken, but you have to work hard. Your job as an athlete is to really protect your confidence. And so, when I started doing skeleton and started sharing with people that I was trying to get to the Olympics in a hundred days, I realized that not everyone shared the same vision, let's just call it that. So, when I was talking to people who did see it and get it, it was great. But then just in a heartbeat, I would speak to someone else and they would make me feel like I was absolutely crazy. 

And so I started realizing that it was in my best interest to really protect that dream and align myself with people who shared the same vision. And instead of tearing down this dream that I had, they would support, and they would help, and they would elevate. So, I think it's really important to just find those people who are going to lift you up; that doesn't mean that they're 'yes people.' We all need people who can, you know, give us good advice and steer us away from the wrong direction. But fundamentally, you should surround yourself with people who fundamentally believe in you and what you're capable of doing. And that goes a long way in just helping build up your confidence. So, who is your community? Who is the team that you're surrounding yourself with? I think that's really important also, what are you saying to yourself? Because it starts with you. So, it's one thing for others to build you up, but then if you go home and you're at home in your room by yourself, and you're tearing yourself down, that's not going to work either.

So, this is one thing I'm personally really working on 'cause when you doubt yourself that manifests on the field. I'm working on this really hard and skeleton because it's still a new sport for me; this is year two, year three. And I'm working towards the next Olympic games. I have to believe that I'm just as good as the gold medalist from the UK. I can't get on the track and start second guessing myself, which I sometimes do. And so, I'm really working hard at making sure that the things I'm telling myself support where I'm trying to go. So just kind of be aware of what you're telling yourself and don't give yourself permission to tell yourself things that aren't helping you move forward and closer to your end goal.

Stef

And so with starting a new sport like that, and if you're a girl out there that maybe wants to totally shift gears, 'cause you're not having fun in whatever sport you're at, what's the key to creating a support system that will set you up for a successful transition into something else?

Simi

The key is I like to surround myself with people who know more than me, people who are experts in the field. So, I'll give you an example of real life now. It's two years until the next Olympics, and I've started really looking into those experts I can surround myself with now. So, I did a lot of research on who can help me get to where I need to go to, with my mental toughness at the center of that because even if I have the best coach strength coach, et cetera, if my mind is falling apart, that's not going to help me. 

And so, I started reading up on sports psychology, and I came across a psychologist who has helped some of the best Olympians in the world. And so, I actually reached out to this sports psychologist and, I said, "Hey, you know, I'm trying to take my mental game to the next level. Are you willing to work with me?". And so, we arranged a call, I shared what I was trying to do, and she was in support of it. So, I think it's really just asking, asking for help.

It sounds so simple. It's not rocket science, but identifying those people who you think are the experts that can help you get to where you want to go to. So, you are in the best position to know what you need, and you have to go and find it. Do the research, do your homework. Look for those individuals that can help you get to where you're going to go to and be bold enough to ask them for help. The worst they can say is no, or they'll, you know, have the conversation and you maybe find it's not the right fit for whatever reason, but take the step and see what's possible. 

Stef

So, what is that step, especially if you're a young female athlete and maybe you don't have the network like you have of your entire career? But you know, all being the same, you did probably sit at home, put in the work, find the person, and do your research. So, what can you pass on to other girls out there that might want to find somebody? What are the steps to go through, that you went through, and who did you end up finding?   

Simi

So, the person I ended up finding is a psychologist that's based in Canada and she, I found out, worked with some of Canada's top  Olympians and was excited to talk to her because she worked with an Olympic bronze medalist  that was a track and field athlete in Canada, you know, Ashton Eaton, his wife. And so, I read an article about her and she was talking about the journey that she took as an athlete from getting to be basically a participant on the world level, to what it meant to go from that to be a contender, and she really credited her sports psychologist with helping her make that transition. And she won a bronze medal in Rio. And  that's really what separates you at that level. At the Olympic level, everybody's physically strong, and so that mental training is what helps separate the good from the best. 

And so, after I read the article about Brianne, I decided, you know what, if it worked for Brianne, it might work for me. And I reached out, but as I'm sharing this, what I'm realizing is that, one, I think that a young athlete now is in the best position to do this. Maybe  20 years ago, I couldn't have done this. There were no resources like Google and all of these places where you can find this information. Now we have phones, we have laptops. Everything is at your fingertips. Information is at your fingertips. Even if you're not looking necessarily to work with a sports psychologist, there is information that's available out there. Just read up on it, get tips, hear what other people are doing, listen to podcasts, get that information. 

But even if you're not looking to do that type of thing, I think back, and I think about what I was doing about 15 years ago was the same when I was making the move. I remember I was at Nike at that time, doing the sneaking out at lunch, I was working out in between lunch. This was when I was training as a track athlete and when I realized, you know what, this is not gonna work anymore, because if I want to train at the highest level, I have to put myself in a different environment. 

And so, I started looking for a different coach. And, I mean, this was 2006, so there was Internet, but I just started by Googling and looking people up, word of mouth, asking around my community because if you're in the sport, it's a small sport, you know people. And through that, that led me to my coach, still my track coach now. I was just messaging him the other day, Al Joyner, who was an Olympic gold medalist. But I think really just researching is the best place to start, knowing what you need and looking for it and reaching out and asking for help. 

Stef

I love that you said just be bold and ask, because the worst thing they can do is not respond or say no.

Simi

Right!

Stef

So, I think that is amazing, and we can all do that. Anyone can do that from their home. So, let's talk a little bit about then, what you've learned from having all these different people in your life, along your journey from track athletes to Nike to Olympic skeleton racer. How would you say that you have had to prepare mentally to succeed in your journey in sport? 

Simi

It's been ups and downs. I definitely don't know that I've had a structured kind of process to that. I think one thing that I've always had, and I don't know, I have to really think deeper about where it came from is just the willingness to try the power of just showing up. So, this manifested, for example, in skeleton and bobsled. When I found out about the team, there was a tryout that was going to happen, a tryout in Houston, Texas, and I learned about the tryout about two weeks before. It was a post that I saw on Instagram and this was again when I was living in Johannesburg. And so, I really wasn't sure if to go. I had two weeks coming out of a 10 year retirement to try to get ready for a sport that I knew nothing about. But because I was so excited about the possibility of what could be, I let all the other uncertainties kind of fade away. And so, I think my mental process, and what served me the best in sport is really just showing up and going for it; it's that simple. That has served me well over the test of time 'cause that's the same thing I did back as a track athlete. 

I was ready to show up in Kansas after I was planning to move there, after college, but unfortunately the coach wasn't ready to show up. But I was ready to show up when it was time to move to California to train with a new coach. So, I think that's step one is being ready to show up. And once you're ready to show up, then it's really about how can you minimize the distractions? That, for me, is something I'm still working on is trying to -- once I do show up, how do I stay really focused at the task at hand, and there's various ways that I try to do that.

I think having a plan always helps.  The more and more I, you know, train the more and more I realize the power of a plan. It's one thing to dream and have goals, but you need a plan. And the more that you have a plan, the more you can stick to a routine, the more consistent you can be to that routine, the more prepared you'll feel and the more confident you'll feel so that when you get on the line, you know you've done everything that you can do. And that's what really, it's all about being in a space where when you get on the line, you know that if you had a mirror in front of you, you could look in the mirror and know that you've done everything you can; that in itself gives you confidence and you're ready to go.

Stef

Having a plan and creating some checkpoints for yourself along that journey to your goal, I think is so incredibly important. Not just writing down goals, but thinking about, okay, what are my interim goals to get there? It's a great tool for us all to learn whether we're doing sport or not. 

Simi

Yeah. 

Stef

The thing is, though, when you show up and you're about to either start the game or throw yourself down a track going 90 miles an hour, how do you ensure that you're having the right  positive internal voice?

Simi

That's a tough one, and that's one that you have to stay absolutely vigilant about, and so this requires practice. Like anything, it's about training yourself to stay focused on those thoughts that are going to move you closer to your goal. So, this is not something that just happens. People have to intentionally stay focused on making sure that they're talking to themselves in a way that's going to lift them up.

So, one piece of advice that I've heard from Missy Franklin on this is don't say anything to yourself that you wouldn't say to your little sister or a family member. And I think that's a great piece of advice because sometimes, we find ourselves just talking in a way to ourselves where we'd never say to anybody else. So just don't give yourself permission, and as you find your mind drifting, bring it back. And again, this takes practice to just stay focused on those things, those thoughts that are moving you closer to your goal, not away from your goal. 

Stef

And it's even more important when you're facing adversity in your sport. So, I'd love to hear from you: When you look back at your whole journey, what is the biggest hurdle that you've had to jump over? And what advice would you give to girls that might go through something similar or just have a roadblock in their way and they need to  hopefully move through it?

Simi

Yes. So not making an Olympic team is pretty devastating, and I've experienced that now twice in my life. Particularly the second time when I didn't make the track and field Olympic team in 2008, that was particularly disappointing because I had put so much time and energy into that one goal. I had relocated my whole life and moved to the Olympic training center in San Diego just for this goal. And so, when I didn't make it, that was pretty disappointing. And I had to really find my way through that disappointment and navigate it and find a way for it not to define me. 

And I think that is just a part of sport. Knowing that there's going to be disappointments, heartbreaking disappointments, that's a part of sport, but I think what kept me going was that I knew that there was life beyond that and that I had the opportunity to reimagine a new goal. For me, it ended up being skeleton 10 years down the road. 

But even in that moment, I knew that there was going to be life beyond that devastation. So, the dream never dies; we just reimagine it in a new way. So, in that moment when I didn't make it, and I was horribly disappointed, I reimagined my new goals and that, at the time, was goals in my career and things that I wanted to do as a marketing professional at Nike. And then that dream then evolved to then what I could do back on ice. So be willing to allow those failures, if you will, to propel you into re-imagining new dreams. 

Stef

And when you get to that moment where you have actually hit a roadblock or you didn't accomplish your goal, I think it is something really powerful, and going back to the self-talk, instead of saying "no," "but," et cetera, et cetera, you say "yes" and "I'm going to now go do this." And those little tips that I didn't learn till later in my life, but even the power of your words, like the word "no" and "but" versus "yes" and "and" can be a powerful part of your internal dialogue and help any girl get through a challenging time. 

Simi

Definitely.

Stef

So, let's talk about your passions outside of sport, which are very impressive, and for the audience, I would love for you to tell them a little bit about the two different programs that you have been part of, which is the Obama Foundation as a leader and Yale University Fellowship. One of our values at VIS is that the more you play sport, the more power you're going to have to then go and do something great off the field, and you are a great example of doing that. So, tell us about those organizations, how you got involved, and what it has meant for you. 

Simi

Definitely. So, part of my whole sports journey is also acknowledging that sports provides a platform. As an athlete, you do have a voice and you do have a say in  shaping  communities. And so, for me,  I have a particular interest in investing in female leaders in Africa, helping girls see new possibilities, helping them become leaders and barrier breakers. 

So, when I came back from the Olympics, that was one thing I definitely wanted to use this platform that I now had to do. So, I've been working with girls across the continent from North Africa, so Morocco, Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa, and just really working in partnership with other organizations to teach girls leadership skills through sport. And so, in 2018, the Obama Foundation started a new program in which they were supporting and acknowledging emerging leaders who were helping shape the continent of Africa. So, they selected 200 leaders from all over Africa to bring us all together, to inspire, and empower us, and through the network enable us to really help together shape the continent.  

So, I applied for that program because I felt like sometimes, and I still feel this way, that sport sometimes gets left out of the conversation when people talk about social impact. But I think that it has a very important seat at the table. And so, I wanted sports to be part of the same conversation, just like when people talk about things like, you know, climate change and health care and really importantly, education. Those are all very important, and sports, in a way, touches some of those different facets as well. And so, I applied and was chosen as part of that first class, that inaugural class of 200 emerging leaders that are driving change across the continent of Africa. So, what that means is that I really have a great network now that I can tap into as I am continuing to do that work to empower young African women across the continent.

And then last year, I had the opportunity to spend a semester at Yale University as part of what they call their World Fellows Program. And so, the World Fellows is a program that brings together world leaders to Yale's campus every fall semester with the goal of basically helping us be better leaders, help us to shape our leadership, to also connect with one another, and we have access to all of Yale's resources really to help us take our leadership to the next level. And so, again, for me, it was really about this vision that I have of how can I, through sport, continue to empower the next generation of girls in Africa? And so, taking part in that program showed me all that is possible in terms of how I can continue to shape that work, and learn from other leaders. So, 16 leaders are chosen every year; you have people that are working as politicians, people that are working on,  climate change , and again, for me, I want sports to have a seat at the table in all of these very important conversations that are shaping our world. So, that's really what that's about. It's about being able to have a platform to continue extending the story that I want to tell and the impact that I want to make in the world, even when I'm not on the field of play. So, those are spaces where that can be done.  

Stef

It's so inspiring and I'm excited to see how you continue to drive change in that area, through those organizations, and just through you living your journey.

Simi

Thank you.

Stef

It's incredible, and ultimately, I think organizations have an opportunity to decide how they're going to have impact and have impact at the front of what they do. It's what we're doing here with VIS; we're trying to not just bring sport into the conversation, but make sure there are female athletes sitting in that conversation of sport.

Simi

Definitely. 

Stef

Bringing visibility to amazing female leaders like you is one step in that long journey that we're all fighting for.

Simi

Yes. We all need a seat at the table, and we all need our voices heard. So this is important and female leaders have the power to change the world. So I think the sooner we can all own that, and it excites me to think about what's possible. This is bigger, to me, than a conversation around pay equity. I believe in that, absolutely. But this is bigger in terms of just thinking about the different ways that we can change the world. We definitely should get paid, but what are the other things that we can bring visibility to, the other causes or things that we want to champion? We have a big role to play in that. 

Stef

Yes, we do, and we all have a role. I think that's one of the things that is most inspiring, to what's happening today in our economy and the world getting smaller, is that every single person, no matter your level, your age, your socio-economic status, you can take a role if you take a step or you take an action. And I think it's been an absolute pleasure to see the actions that you are taking and we're excited to follow your journey.

So what is your superpower that you think you gained from sport, and how will you use it to drive something positive outside of sport?

Simi

My superpower is super heart. I feel like I have the drive to just face anything and the determination to face anything. And that has gotten me far and that same kind of super heart plays out off the ice, in all of the things that I'm really passionate about: uplifting others and empowering young girls in particular and the next generation of African girls through sport. So that's my superpower, super heart. 

Stef

That is an amazing super power. What would be three words that you would use to describe your journey in sport? And they do not all have to be positive; they just have to be real and honest. 

Simi

One is uncomfortable. So, it has not been a comfortable ride because I've had to face fear in that ride, literally, physically, and emotionally. So, I've had to step out of my comfort zone through the journey, but it's been uncomfortable. That's one. Secondly would be purposeful. So, it's been a journey that has helped me fulfill a greater purpose, and that has been instrumental, because in those moments where I was uncomfortable, the bigger purpose helped me keep going. So purposeful number two, and fun. At times.

(laughs)

I mean, sport brings me joy, and in the moments that I've had throughout my journey where I've just had fun, those have been best moments, whether it's getting to practice the five second skeleton run that I love to do, or it's such a weird thing that I love to jump,  as a jumper, like on my jump days, that is the most fun thing -- just jumping,  and if I get to go to the gym and do plyometrics, 'cause I get to jump, I love that. So those fun days is what sport is all about. And those have been the highlights of my journey. 

Stef

When you think about your younger self or the other girls out there playing sports, what would be one piece of advice you would pass on?

(background music starts)

Simi

Know that the journey that you're imagining may not end up looking like you're imagining it and be willing to adapt with the way that it goes, because you might find that it takes you even further than you ever dreamed it would. But if you're not open to that, and you want to stay in the original picture, then you might miss out on something great. So be open to adapt to however your journey unfolds. 

Stef

And that's such good advice right now for everything we're all going through. It is important for us to all learn that, and especially as a young female athlete with lots of amazing years ahead of you. 

Simi

Definitely. 

Stef

So thank you so much, Simi, for joining us today on the Voice In Sport podcast.

Simi

I appreciate the platform. Keep up the good work. 

Stef

We appreciate you so much, Simi, for sharing your unique journey and inspiring us all to change more than just the game. Make sure to follow Simi on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @simisleighs, and check out Simi’s workshop on AirBnB.com about reinvention. Please subscribe to the Voice in Sport Podcast and give us a rating. You can follow us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok @voiceinsport and if you are interested in advocating for female athletes check out voiceinsport.com and voiceinsporfoundation.org.

Host: Stef Strack

Producer: VIS Creator™ Anya Miller

Simi Adeagbo, Olympic Skeleton Racer, describes her journey in sport as uncomfortable, purposeful, and fun. She shares how mental toughness, determination, and heart have guided her to success in sport and an even greater impact on the world.